More than 100 years before William the Conqueror launched his conquest of England in 1066, a mega-city flourished to the east. From the 9th to the 15th centuries, the capital city of the Khmer Empire exercised military dominance and economic influence over much of Southeast Asia. At the city’s peak, the area was home to more than one million people. Between 900 – 1200 A.D., a series of powerful kings commissioned some of the greatest architectural monuments in the world in the name of their religions. One of the last of the great temples was simply named “Capital City Temple” or Angkor Wat.
Before history was recorded on paper, it was carved into the stone faces of the temples. During the reign of the Khmer Empire, Angkor was often under attack from the Cham to the East (now South Vietnam) and the Siamese to the West (now Thailand).
For short periods, Angkor would fall into the hands of the enemy, only to be won back by the Khmer. The images of these battles, along with daily life, are etched into the walls.
With the change of the kings sometimes brought the change of dominant religions. The vast majority of the temples are Hindu, dedicated to Shiva, while some of the later temples were built in honor of Buddha. Some temples, like Angkor Wat, started construction under one religion and then later were “converted” to the other. The ruins of several of the later temples possess images true to both Hinduism and Buddhism. Still used today for religious practice, these ancient places are breathtaking examples of architecture, engineering, and culture. There is no other place in the world like Angkor.
The touristy Cambodian town nearby the famous temples of Angkor is Siem Reap, meaning “Vanquished Siamese” or the “Defeat of Siam,” referencing the Khmer king’s victory against a Siam invasion in the mid 16th century. Siem Reap was a small village until the beginning of the 20th century when the French acquired Angkor by treaty in 1907. At that time, most of the temples of Angkor had been “taken back” by the jungle. France and Japan invested in rebuilding efforts to restore the temples of Angkor. Increased tourism drove the growth of Siem Reap until the late 1960s when civil war stemmed the influx of visitors. From 1975-1979, the “Killing Fields” era, the brutal reign of the Khmer Rouge was responsible for the deaths of over 2 million Cambodians, accounting for the loss of 25% of the country’s population. It wasn’t until the late 1990s that the Khmer Rouge was itself vanquished and restoration efforts at Angkor continued.
Today, the city of Siem Reap is home to a few hundred thousand people, 50% of whom are employed by the tourist economy. As a result, prices for food and other items in the area are inflated, even though the average salary of workers is only about $70/month. Like in Vietnam, tourists are charged a premium for goods and services.
There are several open markets in the city, selling everything from t-shirts and handmade coconut bowls to cleaning supplies and spices. The night markets are an especially popular way to shop while escaping the heat of the day.
The laneways of Siem Reap are populated with restaurants and shops and much less chaotic than the main streets. Fish-eaters should make sure to order the local signature dish, Amok, a river-fish curry served with rice.
Pub Street is the famous lane of bars and restaurants overrun by visitors. Famous for $.50 draft local beers, $1 fruit smoothies, and $5 foot massages, Pub Street is the party district of Siem Reap. After a morning of trekking around the temples, a late afternoon foot massage and a couple of $.50 beers are not a bad way to go.
Getting around Siem Reap is a breeze. About every 15 feet (not kidding), a driver will ask if you’d like a “Tuk Tuk” (pronounced with a “u”, sounds like “new”). Unless you’re going to the temples, it’s an easy city to manage on foot. While not quite as death defying as Vietnam, the same rules for crossing the street apply (always give way to cars and cross purposefully through the gaps of tuk tuks, motorbikes and bicycles).
Because the city is mainly set up for tourists and bustles at night, I recommend finding a hotel off the main road. We stayed at the Rambutan Resort, a gay-friendly boutique hotel down a quiet lane about a 7 minute walk from Pub Street. The staff at Rambutan are lovely and the $3 fresh ginger and mint mojitos at happy hour are not to be missed.
They also operate the Rambutan Hotel on the same lane for more budget conscious travellers. A deluxe suite at the resort runs about $72/night during low season and a villa at the hotel is closer to $50/night. Both places have refreshing salt-water pools, an essential amenity for travelling during the hot season. Be prepared for 100+ degree days, with humidity making it feel closer to 110 degrees.
People who come to Siem Reap only to visit Angkor Wat are missing out. While Angkor Wat is most certainly deserving of its architectural accolades and presents an even more remarkable image at sunrise and sunset, the other temples of Angkor, each unique in design and aesthetic, are well worth the three-day ticket to the park ($40 USD). Tickets are purchased are the Angkor Conservation Area where they’ll take your photo to place on your ticket. Each time you enter the park, your ticket (and photo) will be checked at the gates.
If you’re visiting during the hot season (April and May), I’d suggest touring the temples in the early morning for 4-5 hours and then returning to your hotel for pool time and a nap in the A/C. The sunrise tours to Angkor Wat will leave hotels at about 4:45 a.m. Other morning tours can start at a more reasonable 7:30 a.m. after breakfast. One thing to note is hiring a driver is not the same as hiring a guide and vice versa. If you book a tour online, it will likely include both. Tuk Tuks are an inexpensive way to get around for two of the three days. The day you want to venture to the temples far out of town like the “Lady Temple”, hire a car instead.
We broke our temple visits into three days: Day 1 (Angkor Wat at sunrise, Angkor Thom and Bayon, and Ta Prohm, e.g. Tomb Raider); Day 2, the “Big Loop” including Preah Khan, East Mebon and Pre Rup plus a few others; Day 3, Banteay Srey “the Lady Temple” and the Landmine Museum. I’ll touch on a few of the highlights and leave you to explore the rest when you visit.
The grandest temple of them all is Angkor Wat. Built during the reign of King Suryavaraman II in the Mid 12th Century, Angkor Wat is surrounded by a moat and a enormous exterior wall.
The temple itself is 1 square kilometer and the exterior of the walls of the main floor is covered in carvings detailing the history of the period. During the wet season, you can see water in the reflecting pools of the temple.
If you visit Angkor Wat at sunrise, be prepared for a back-lit silhouette and throngs of visitors sitting beyond the outer wall on the far side of the lake. Some guidebooks recommend visiting after 2 p.m. to see the sun on the front face of the temple and then staying for sunset.
When it’s 100 plus degrees in the afternoon, I’ll take the morning silhouette.
Nearby, Angkor Thom (meaning “Great City”), was the last capital of the Khmer Empire. After Angkor Wat, it is the second most popular temple.
On the road to Angkor Thom, you are likely to see a troop of macaque monkeys frolicking near the road and attempting to steal things from unsuspecting tourists. You may also pass an elephant or two. There’s really nothing to prepare you for the sight of passing an elephant from a tuk tuk.
The etchings on the exterior of Angkor Thom are as impressive as those of Angkor Wat. The main temple inside the Great City is Bayon, featuring enormous stone faces on 37 towers. If you have only one day to see the temples, make sure Bayon is on your list.
Ta Prohm is popularly known as Tomb Raider thanks to Angelina Jolie’s filming of the first Lara Croft film on site. In spite of the hype, it’s a worthy temple to visit in its own right, large enough to get lost ducking through the corridors inside. Ta Prohm is one of the temples that has needed significant restoration since the jungle completely took it back after a few hundred years.
The “Big Loop” refers to the ring road around the majority of the temples, most easily accessed by Tuk Tuk or taxi. Aside from the temples mentioned above, there are eight major temples around the Big Loop.
Preah Kahn (‘Sacred Sword’) is another large temple great for exploring. Similar to Ta Prohm (Tomb Raider), the jungle appears to be willing the battle for turf. Preah Kahn’s intricately stacked stones and religious carvings are still worth a visit.
East Mebon, consecrated in 952 AD in honor of Shiva, is a Hindu temple-mountain topped by five towers. (Eat your heart out, Tolkien). Don’t miss the massive stone elephants guarding the corners of the temple.
Pre Rup, or as I affectionally dubbed it “Glute Burner”, is a temple mountain completed in 962 with a hella climb to reach the top. The stairs are so steep that when you get to the top and look down, you can’t see the first stairs. Getting up and down the stairs at Pre Rup is the ancient program for “buns of steel.”
When your legs have given out, enjoy the mental exercise of knowing that your architectural gym is over 1,000 years old.
Often thought to be the loveliest and most intricate of all the temples is Banteay Srey. Commonly referred to as the ‘Lady Temple,’ Banteay Srey is more strictly translated to mean the ‘Citadel of the Woman.’
It’s worth the $40 taxi ride into the Cambodian countryside to reach this outer temple about 38 kilometers North of Siem Reap. Built in the late 10th century, the temple was only recently rediscovered by French archeologists in 1914. The striking color of the pink sandstone combined with the delicate carvings give the Citadel an appearance like none other.
A former child solider, Aki Ra, founded the Landmine Museum to raise funds for the removal of landmines and unexploded ordinances and awareness about the destructive impact of these weapons on communities in Cambodia even today.
Born in 1970, Aki Ra’s parents were killed by the Khmer Rouge and he was forced as a child into the Khmer Rouge Army. Having set many mines during his time as a soldier, he became a de-mining specialist after the War and estimated that he personally decommissioned about 50,000 landmines and unexploded ordinances. There are potentially up to 5,000,000 landmines still in the ground in and around Cambodia.
The U.S. ‘carpet bombing’ campaign of Cambodia began in 1970 under President Nixon in which 600,000 Cambodians loss their lives. Between 1965 – 1973, over 60,000 bombing missions targeted Cambodia. Beyond the immediate devastation of those missions, hundreds of thousands of the bombs did not explode on impact.
The Museum also is home to a Relief Center for kids who are orphaned, poor or disabled. The Center provides classes, food and shelter for these disadvantaged students.
In 2010, Aki Ra was recognized as Top 10 Hero by CNN.
Phare, The Cambodian Circus is a joyous experience that captures the talent, artistic prowess, and resilience of Cambodians. Not dissimilar from a smaller and more intimate Cirque du Soleil, each night the Phare troupe tells a story of Cambodian history and mythology through modern dance, acrobatics, juggling and aerial arts.
Not to worry, animal lovers. It’s a people only circus.
It was a special treat for us, particularly since we were accompanied by our friends Silas and Deanna. When you’ve been on the road for a while, meeting up with friends from home is fantastic. We spent a few evenings together exploring the night life of Siem Reap (and the pool life of Rambutan). The circus was most definitely a highlight!
Gravity-defying stunts are interspersed within humorous skits. Each performer appears to exude true joy from the opportunity to express him or herself through the arts.
A not-for-profit, Phare provides employment and free education to disadvantaged youth. They founded a public school with over 1200 students and arts schools with over 500 students.
A visit to Siem Reap is incomplete without a visit to the Phare Circus.
After a week in Siem Reap, we picked up a couple of Cambodian words along the way: Sur sdey (hello) and or kun (thank you).
There is something about visiting a county that is clearly still war-torn decades after fighting as concluded that tugs on one’s heart. While the economy is still fragile and heavily reliant on tourists from China, Japan and western countries, there are examples of hope and strength everywhere. Given the extraordinary architectural, cultural and economic feats of the Khmer Empire over a thousand years ago, something tells me the people of Cambodia will persevere to meet the challenges ahead.
For now, Cambodia, goodbye, farewell and or kun.